By Yilma Bekele | 12 August 2008 — Famine and hunger are two different things. We all fell hungry if me miss a meal or two. But famine is a different story. Famine is ‘when there is not enough food for a great number of people’. To mention a few of the infamous famines in human history there was the Decan Famine in Central India in 1630 where 2 million died, the famine of 1644 in China considered as one of the causes of the fall of the Ming Dynasty, the Bengal famine in 1942, the Biafran famine in 1960 and the 1983 Famine in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian famine of 1973 is not regarded as a major event. About 40 thousand died. During the ’83 famine close to 8 million were affected and about a million died. We are living witnesses of the two famines in our country.
Famine is a very cruel human condition. It is ugly and confronts our inner self with a picture that we are too scared to see. We turn our head. The picture of the mother with no milk for her baby, and her child too weak even to swallow is too much to take. The aid workers are very strong. They are being forced to play the role of god. It must be so difficult to determine who lives and who dies. It is a race to save a few knowing so many have no chance to survive. Famine is no laughing matter.
Is there famine in Ethiopia? The answer is an equivocal yes. No matter how you look at it today there is ‘not enough food to feed all Ethiopians.’ This is according to those whose job is to track down such disasters as famine (not enough food), contagious disease, and climate change other situations that demand global resources to avoid disaster. Yesterday, today even tomorrow people are dying in Ethiopia due to lack of food. A few months back UNICEF reported about 8 million to be considered in the hunger zone. Due to the strong worded denial by the government and some arm-twisting they were forced to water down their assessment. Unfortunately calling famine acute malnutrition is just a play on words, the victim does not care for the fancy definition.
GURAGE ZONE, Ethiopia, 25 June 2008 – Mubarek weighed barely 3.5 kg when he arrived at the Kuno Alimena Health Post in Ethiopia’s drought-affected Gurage Zone. His weight would be average for a newborn baby, but as a toddler, he weighs approximately one-third of what he should. His diagnosis is severe acute malnutrition.Still, Mubarek was lucky; his mother brought him to the weekly UNICEF-supported therapeutic feeding programme that has been set up to save the lives of severely malnourished children. He did not have medical complications that would require clinical treatment and was able to begin home-based care, receiving weekly rations of ready-to-use therapeutic foods. But Mubarek’s twin brother was not so fortunate. He died even before his mother could get help. (http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/ethiopia_44623.html)
One recent morning, over 300 children and their families formed a wide arch across the compound of the Ropi Catholic Church here in Ethiopia’s Siraro District. They were waiting to receive their rations of life saving therapeutic milk (F-75). Consecutive failed rainy seasons, steep hikes in food prices and a lack of resources for prevention and response mechanisms are all having a devastating impact on children and families living in the drought-prone districts of Ethiopia. “We had nothing to eat after the corn crop failed,” said Dureti Degefi, one of the mothers at Ropi. “I am telling you our story because they say you will listen. My stomach is hungry. And my baby is sick. We need help.” (http://www.unicef.org/nutrition/ethiopia_44260.html)
Hadero, Ethiopia – – One by one, the children are placed on a scale hanging from a makeshift wooden stand.The mothers look pleadingly at the Doctors Without Borders aid worker, but he keeps his eyes on his clipboard, tallying the figures that determine whether each child is sick enough to eat today… In this African nation, about 10 million people, more than 12 percent of the population, are now in need of emergency food aid after a drought wiped out harvests. But because grain is now twice as expensive as a year ago – if it is available at all – there is not enough food in Ethiopia to feed everyone in need…. Ethiopia’s foreign-funded welfare system, the Productive Safety Net Program, may get around the food shortage by simply handing out cash to some of its beneficiaries who need extra help this year due to the drought. But even with cash in hand, some worry whether there will be any food at all left to buy. (http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/0627/p01s08-woaf.html)
Clearly there is no point in gathering more facts and information. Those whose job is to raise the red flag during human catastrophe are begging, pleading and working day and night to save lives. There are all kinds of explanations for the reoccurrence of famine in Ethiopia. Some say it is because we were feudal while others blame the brand of socialism as practiced by the military regime that was not Ethiopian enough. Today we are stuck with the new and improved revolutionary democracy that is neither a philosophy nor a theory rather another cover for dictatorship by a chosen few. There is one thread that connects all three regimes and it is the absence of Democracy.
This is what Amartya Sen (Nobel Prize winner in Economics) have to say after studying the issue of famine. In a paper titled ‘Democracy as a universal value’ he wrote “the remarkable fact that, in the terrible history of famines in the world, no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press. We cannot find exceptions to this rule, no matter where we look… we have to look at the connection between political and civil rights, on the one hand, and the prevention of major economic disasters, on the other. Political and civil rights give people the opportunity to draw attention forcefully to general needs and to demand appropriate public action. The response of a government to the acute suffering of its people often depends on the pressure that is put on it. The exercise of political rights (such as voting, criticizing, protesting, and the like) can make a real difference to the political incentives that operate on a government.’
The Time interview with the Prime Minister was a little bewildering. His government is arguing that the International aid organizations are lying about the dire need of his own people.
Question: Why the dispute with UNICEF (which announced 6 million at risk and 125,00 children with severe acute malnutrition, a figure revised to 4.6 million and 75,000 after the government protested) over the scale of the problem?
Prime Minister: Because their assessment was patently false. I do not think there was ill intention on their part. But every country is competing for emergency resources, and the more gruesome the picture [you present], the better chance you have of receiving a large share of those resources.
There is definitely a major disconnect here. Isn’t UNICEF asking for donations to help Ethiopians in danger of dying due to lack of food and medicine? What brought about the question of ‘ill intentions’ when begging for Ethiopia. Is the PM saying UNICEF exaggerated the number under imminent danger and lied about it to get more for Ethiopia? But that is good news for Ethiopians. It means their needs will be met. Shouldn’t the PM invite UNICEF director for a lavish state dinner? UNICEF is caught between its commitment to report facts with evidence and its responsibility as a guest of the Ethiopian government that approves its license to operate. That is what is called a rock and a hard place. We would just like to remind UNICEF folks that their responsibility is to the truth and the welfare of the individual human being not to governments. UNICEF should always report the truth and assume guardianship of the faces and stories of those who are silenced by hunger. The regime’s denial of the existence of the problem is a cause for alarm. As the PM said there is a shortage of food set aside for emergencies, one would think the government would work hard to get a bigger share. The regime is more interested in saving face rather than admitting its people are dying. It is willing to trade off the lives of thousands rather than coming to terms with its failed polices. The Ethiopian regime has a blind side when it comes to the needs of its citizens.
On the other hand it is not farfetched to think that the regime is definitely clueless when it comes to its subjects. The absence of basic press freedom is a major suspect in this total blindness by the regime. A free and vibrant press is vital for decision makers to understand and know the heart beat of the citizen. Closed societies commit major blunders and cause pain to their citizens because they have no interaction with the citizen. Thus the absence of press freedom in Ethiopia is a major cause of these constant missteps by the minority regime.
In computer speak they call it GIGO. It stands for garbage in garbage out. A computer will unquestioningly process the most nonsensical of input data and produce nonsensical output. The same with decision makers saddled with faulty, incomplete, or imprecise data they come up with wrong and imperfect solutions that cause harm and agony to their people. Arresting moneychangers to curb inflation is a good example.
The clueless nature of the regime is well recorded. To mention a few we remember the disaster of the ‘calculated risk’ where the people rejected the TPLF regime during the famous 2005 general election, the war with Eritrea which was claimed to be unlikely and impossible but drained the treasury and sacrificed thousands of citizens, the invasion of Somalia now dragging for years with no end in sight and the 12% growth that is now replaced by double digit inflation and famine with no foreign reserve to buy necessities.
Liberation movements that find themselves upgraded to government level usually go through a growing process. Some are lucky and mature and produce good leaders (ANC and Solidarity in Poland). As time goes they learn the art of balancing the different demands of a complex society. Others end up being a curse on their society (TPLF, MPLA, Khmer Rouge). The little ragtag army with a single mission of overthrowing the dictator finds it difficult to transform itself to be legitimate power contender during time of peace. The elite leaders surround themselves with weak underlings and find themselves operating in their own fantasyland. The Palace, the timid Parliament, a few controlled meetings and photo op. with foreign leaders becomes their virtual reality. Any disagreement is raised to enemy level. It becomes us against them. Incidents are overblown to mean high danger. Action replaces reserved contemplation of a situation. Contempt to ones adversary and disregard of the law becomes common. They say Nero was playing the mandolin while Rome was burning. That is madness taken to its highest level.
When there are disasters in the west, the head of state visits the region and promises help and encourage their people to rebuild the area back to health. The leaders get involved on the ground by visiting aid centers and roll their sleeves at times and do symbolic acts. That is the response of a democratically elected leader. I doubt our leaders have seen feeding centers or talked to mothers carrying their dying child, fathers burying their sons and daughters and aid workers exhausted and numb. They seem to forget it is the taxpayer that makes three meals a day served by an army of servants possible. It is a most shameful act to undermine the death of a single human being. It is the height of indifference to fight over the definition of ‘famine and malnutrition.’ Showing a little concern and remorse for ones action that is causing all this man made disaster is a better and humane response to such catastrophe.
Seventeen years is along time to produce tangible results. The regime has tried everything to bring peace and prosperity to our country. It has failed. It is obvious most of the solutions are not working. What does it take for the leaders to see that the situation is beyond repair? That a new approach is urgently needed? That no matter how one tries it is impossible to fit a square inside a circle. There are plenty of Ethiopians who have excelled in the professions they have chosen. I am sure a vast majority will be more than thrilled to contribute to make their country a better place. A relationship based on equality and mutual benefit will bring out the best in all of us. The so-called ‘revolutionary democracy’ of change by decree is a tired formula. It is so yesterday, it is beyond laughable. Democracy, individual freedom and equal justice under the law is a must to bring any fundamental change. Without democracy and accountability change is impossible. Without a democratic form of government, famine and disease will be with us for a long time to come. Those of us who live outside have a responsibility to get involved and pressure the regime to be responsive to its people. A few hours a month is all it takes. There are plenty of dedicated groups and individuals trying to be the voice of the silenced. I am sure there is a group near where you live. Find your group, get involved and make a difference. May the all almighty give strength to those unfortunate Ethiopians who are bearing the burden of our indifference and our weakness in times of their need.